The Oscar nominations for best animated film carried a surprise for the average moviegoer: Nestled in along with “Surf’s Up” and “Ratatouille” was an unfamiliar word: “Persepolis.”
But this black-and-white cartoon is deserving of the nod. Officially French, but telling an Iranian story, “Persepolis” is an adaptation of a graphic novel that tells the life story of Marjane Satrapi.
Satrapi, who also co-wrote the script and co-directed with Vincent Parronaud, was born in Iran in 1969, into a middle-class household. The movie describes her childhood in Iran under the shah, before the Islamic Revolution of the late 1970s, and then her adolescence in the theocratic reign of the Ayatollah Khomeini.
At this stage, the sage counsel of Marjane’s grandmother (voiced by French screen legend Danielle Darrieux) sharply contrasts with the restrictive new codes of the Islamic regime. Independence and feistiness are grandmother’s watchwords, but these are tested by cultural oppression and the wearing of veils.
Marjane (voiced as an adult by Chiara Mastroianni) is sent away to attend school in Vienna, and while a Western address would seem to be just the thing for a headstrong young woman, it doesn’t work out that way. She finds almost as many struggles in a free society as in her homeland.
This story is rendered in a highly stylized form of animation, with flat, round images. It’s a bold style, like reading a really hip newspaper editorial cartoon.
To be sure, the heroine’s self-absorption grows annoying at times; were it not for the fascinating backdrop of a changing Iran, many of Satrapi’s observations would be conventional and self-righteous.
In one strange sequence, Marjane’s accusation against an innocent bystander is depicted with a curious absence of shame or guilt. She seems unaware that she’s her own worst enemy.
On the other hand, “Persepolis” does have that backdrop. Learning about Marjane’s memories of heavy-metal music and politics in Iran in the 1980s is revealing, and who knew that a black market existed in Bee Gees items in Tehran?